Is there a crisis of legitimacy with the British political system? Is dissatisfaction among the public with our representative institutions a real cause for concern? It’s true that turnout across the electorate has been declining consistently in the postwar period. But this could simply be symptomatic of disinterest among a growing section of the population rather than a challenge to the system. Even if 35% of the electorate did not turn out in 2010, 65%– or almost 30 million voters– did. Does disinterested mean crisis?
In the Hansard Society’s 2014 Audit of Engagement, they found that only 33% of voters think Britain’s system of government works well. Although higher than in the previous two years, under half of those questioned said they would definitely vote in a general election. The most striking difference is seen among different age groups. While 67% of those over 75 are certain to vote, less than a quarter of the 18 to 24 group feel similarly inclined. Why are young people so disinclined to vote? And by extension, why are we currently discussing extending the franchise to 16 year olds? There are several reasons why young people are less likely to vote in a general election than their older counterparts.
The first is that young people don’t feel they have sufficient knowledge about politics. The second reason that young people give for not voting is that they’re disaffected from the political system or they’re not interested in politics. And the third reason is the fact that the political system perhaps doesn’t adequately represent young people themselves. Low turnout is not necessarily an indication of dissatisfaction. In the US, for example, there has always been a school of thought which sees abstention as an indicator of satisfaction, or doesn’t connect the two. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that generalised satisfaction with the political system, and even with democracy, have declined at the same time.
Perhaps a better indication dissatisfaction is not the level of abstention, but rather, the growing support for radical or protest parties. UKIP rose quickly from a small, anti-European group to one that returns 24 NEPs in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Its support is built upon issues such as Europe and immigration, as well as a rejection of mainstream politics and politicians. It’s not a wholly inaccurate characterisation to call UKIP a protest party, because it’s clear that their support comes from sections of the population who are very unhappy with the status quo. However, I think the term can often obscure as much as it reveals, because it really depends on what you mean by protest. What are these voters upset about?
What do they want changed? What’s wrong with the status quo in their opinion? And what you find is that the protests that they have in mind are very specific– they’re very, very anxious about immigration, they really don’t like the EU, and they regard the mainstream political parties as parties that don’t represent the concerns of voters like them anymore. And they’re a very specific demographic of voters– older, white, generally less well off. So there’s a set of concerns there that kind of define what we mean by protest. This isn’t just a catch all party of anybody who’s upset with the political system. This is a very specific set of voters with a very specific set of concern.
What about voters who are dissatisfied with what the main parties have to offer but do not share the Eurosceptic or anti-immigration positions of UKIP, or perhaps are concerned by this party’s portrayal in the media? The Green Party– which has remained untainted by this type of coverage– has simultaneously seen its support rise. For voters who do not agree with the policy positions of UKIP, there is still a viable green alternative to protest. On the one hand, we know that the Greens traditionally pick up votes from people on the left of British politics.
And certainly, the fact that the Labour Party has been perceived to move towards a centre ground, and the Liberal Democrats, who might have been a party that some potential Green voters would have voted for– the Liberal Democrats, obviously, have lost a lot of support since 2010, and much of their vote is now going to the Greens. It’s also true that we would think that UKIP voters were traditionally coming from the right of centre. Think about issues of immigration and issues about Euroskepticism– those would be issues that would be traditionally seen as right of centre. But some people on the left are moving to UKIP. And that might be because of concerns around the economy and concerns about immigration as well.
So it’s not as clear cut as saying that immigration is just an issue of the right, or even Euroscepticism. Those issues actually cross cut that traditional left right. In other European countries, counterparts to UKIP and the Greens have won significant numbers of votes, seats, and even entered government. They have crossed what we refer to as thresholds of legitimacy. But once they’ve done so, their experiences in government have been as varied in success as that of the mainstream parties. Does this, perhaps, mean that the continued protest status in Britain of parties such as UKIP and the Greens has as much to do with how the electoral system has so far marginalised them as it does with their true identities as parties?